In February 1997, Alex Chilton had played his first set of the night at a gig at New York City’s Knitting Factory when the power went out. The rest of the show was cancelled, and most of the audience left. But Chilton wasn’t going to let a minor issue like the lack of electricity get in his way, and those who stuck around had a terrific treat in store for them — Chilton unexpectedly re-appeared with an acoustic guitar in hand and announced he was going to continue playing (drummer Richard Dworkin also joins in at one point), much to the remaining audience’s delight. Fortuitously for Chilton aficionados, a well-prepared fan named Jeff Vargon recorded the show, preserving it for posterity, now released as “Electricity By Candlelight” (Bar/None). And in the wake of Chilton’s untimely death in 2010, this release is even more poignant.
Vargon used a cassette deck, so the sound quality is decidedly lo-fi. But what a treat to hear Chilton fooling around with songs he loves (he doesn’t play any of his own songs), transforming the evening into a party, complete with sing-alongs. It’s not such a surprise to hear Chilton do the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but he also goes for the deep cuts by adding a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Solar System.” He also gives nods to country (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E”), Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”), Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You” and Astrud Gilberto (“The Girl From Ipanema”).
Toward the end, everyone joins in on a buoyant rendition of “If I Had a Hammer.” Judging by the crowd response, what could’ve been an evening that ended in disappointment instead became the kind of special event you’ll always remember. Today, with smart phones and handheld digital recorders, the show would probably have been up on YouTube within the hour. Back then, one never knew which shows would end up being recorded by someone and which would be left to exist only in the audience’s memory. In this instance, for those who weren’t lucky enough to be there, it’s the kind of off-the-wall offering Chilton’s fans will really appreciate. It’s the kind of release that makes you wonder — what other audio goodies might be out there in someone’s collection?